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Hold Me, Darlin'

by James McManus |  Published: May 21, 2008


Though the games are quite different, Texas hold'em is often called a variant of seven-card stud. This is mainly because no draw takes place in either game and players have a board of exposed cards in both — individual in stud, shared in hold'em — for a total of seven cards from which to make a five-card poker hand. The key differences are stud's antes versus rotating hold'em blinds; stud's 3-1-1-1-1 pattern versus hold'em's 2-3-1-1; the fact that stud is played with fixed bet sizes, whereas hold'em, with four betting rounds instead of five, lends itself more readily to a no-limit format; and the superiority of hold'em as a televised spectacle. Because a hold'em player shares five-sevenths of his cards with opponents, the difference between the best and second-best hand — all the difference in the world, you might say — is nearly always more subtle than in stud. Hold'em also requires no memory of boardcards that were folded. Its no-limit version is much more about sizing bets correctly and reading patterns and body language.

Five-card stud was played as early as 1860, with the seven-card version developing toward the end of the 19th century. Hold'em wasn't played until early in the 20th and didn't overtake draw and seven-stud as the most popular game until about 1990. By then, its original name, Hold Me Darling, had long since been abbreviated to Hold Me, and then, via the twanging vicissitudes of cowboy enunciation, to hold'em.

No one knows for sure where and when the first hand of hold'em was dealt. One plausible guess is that a dozen or so Texas ranch hands wanted to play a little stud, but found they had only one deck. The most creative cowboy must've got to thinking: If five cards were shared by all players, as many as 23 of them could be dealt two-card hands. Though every poker variant has roots in the French game of poque, he probably did not drawl, "Voila!"

While the time and place of this eureka moment is impossible to pinpoint, in May 2007, the Texas Legislature formally recognized Robstown, 20 miles west of Corpus Christi, as the birthplace of hold'em:

WHEREAS, It is said that Texas Hold'em takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master, and this telling statement underscores the high level of skill necessary to win consistently; a successful player relies on reason, intuition, and bravado, and these same qualities have served many notable Texans well throughout the proud history of the Lone Star State; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the 80th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby formally recognize Robstown, Texas, as the birthplace of the poker game Texas Hold'em.

By dating it to "the early 1900s," the resolution underscored the difficulty of being more precise. Hold'em arrived in Dallas, the state's unofficial gambling capital, around 1925. Johnny Moss claimed to have played limit hold'em at the Elks Club and no-limit hold'em at the Otters Club in the '30s, but there's no record of hold'em being part of his legendary showdown with Nick the Greek in 1949.

When Oswald Jacoby on Poker appeared in 1940, it mentioned no game called or resembling hold'em. Jacoby's book had a foreword by Grantland Rice, whose 1924 account of a game at the Polo Grounds between Army and Notre Dame and its famous backfield began: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreyer, Miller, Crowley and Leyden." Rice had mythologized other athletes, as well, including Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, and Bill Tilden. His introduction to a poker compendium was one of the first times the public was encouraged to think of the game as a sport. Jacoby was recognized internationally as both a backgammon and bridge master, so his verdict was all the more credible when he declared poker to be a game of skill. Jacoby on Poker focused on draw and stud, but did mention two games related to hold'em. Spit in the Ocean was a form of draw in which one faceup "spit" card became part of every player's hand. In the game called Cincinnati, which presumably sprang up in that city, each player was dealt five cards facedown, to be combined with five community cards dealt one at a time.

Foster's Complete Hoyle from 1963 mentions neither Cincinnati nor hold'em, but does describe an old variation on draw called Wild Widow. In that game, each player receives five cards facedown, and a "wild widow" card is placed faceup in the center of the table. If the widow is a 5, for example, fives are wild for that hand. Widow and spit cards almost certainly triggered the idea of community cards in Cincinnati and hold'em.

By the later '60s, the progress of hold'em becomes easier to follow. The first nationally published description of "Texas Hold Me" was by A. D. Livingston in the Aug. 16, 1968, issue of Life. Livingston called it the culmination of widow poker and characterized its tactics as "poker upside down. The really big action, unlike normal poker, can often come at the beginning of a hand, as players try to bully one another out." He said the game allowed for "great precision in analyzing hands, especially dear to brainy poker experts." Searching through his extensive collection of poker books, Livingston couldn't find a single reference to Hold Me, though he says it has "quickly" become popular in Texas, Alabama, and Colorado, and may have "covered the country" under such names as Tennessee Hold Me, Hold Me Darling, and Hold'em.

High-stakes players preferred Hold Me, he said, because while in draw only a royal flush is a lock and in seven-stud it is also quite difficult to have one, "in Hold Me, you can tell if you have a lock after the cards are dealt up." Even so, "the main reason for Hold Me's popularity is the huge play it gets at the table. The historical trend in poker has always been toward more and more action," and Hold Me continued that pattern. Novelty also counted in its favor: "people have learned to play [stud], and if properly played it can get pretty drab. But Hold Me — with its increased play of straights and flushes — is more lively than stud ever was. Any respectable stud man would quickly fold a diamond 5-6, but such pip cards are often worth a call in Hold Me. So much depends on [the flop] that it is not uncommon for every player at the table to call the first bet." Two years before the World Series was launched, Livingston boldly declared, "I believe the game is a major event in the history of poker and I predict it will replace stud for the rest of the century."

In Super System 2, Crandell Addington recalls that "Texas hold'em" spread throughout the Lone Star State in the early '60s. He lists "Pinky" Rhoden of Lubbock, "Duck" Mallard of Lockhart, Jesse Alto of Corpus Christi, Jack "Treetop" Straus of Houston, and Tom Moore of San Antonio as leading road gamblers and proselytizers for hold'em. What expert, after all, wouldn't want to play for high stakes against players just learning the game?

Addington says Felton "Corky" McCorkindale (elsewhere spelled McCorquodale) is the man who in 1963 introduced hold'em to Las Vegas, specifically to the California Club downtown at the corner of Ogden and Main Street. Other Texans attracted to Vegas by poker's legal status there included Addington, Straus, Moss, Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, "Sailor" Roberts, and "Amarillo Slim" Preston. But since their game at the Golden Nugget downtown tempted few tourists from the Strip to "drop in," hold'em remained an unintentionally well-kept secret for the rest of the decade. Their game was so insular, in fact, that at the height of the war in Southeast Asia, McCorquodale reportedly asked Brunson, "Where in the heck is this place Vietnam?"

In 1969, however, these colorfully monikered Texans were invited by Sid Wyman to play hold'em near the entrance of his Dunes Casino, on the site where Bellagio now stands on the Strip. And in 1970, of course, Benny Binion and his Texas cronies chose hold'em as one of five games in the inaugural World Series of Poker. The following year they picked it to decide the championship event, which made its current status inevitable.

In the meantime, hold'em continued spreading west to California, Alaska, and even Australia. Its popularity accelerated as the WSOP became better known, and especially when the California legislature declared it legal in 1988. From California, it bounced back east across the United States and — with more than a little help from Dublin's Terry Rogers — into northern Europe, though it wouldn't surpass draw and stud there for at least another decade, as hold'em events began to broadcast on British and American television. Well-respected WSOP narratives by Al Alvarez (The Biggest Game in Town, 1983) and Anthony Holden (Big Deal, 1990) introduced the game to a different sort of audience while giving hold'em players their first taste of literary cachet.

In 1979, ABC's Wide World of Sports had aired a 10-minute segment on the WSOP main event. The following year, CBS Sports did 15 minutes of highlights. Throughout the '80s and early '90s, ESPN broadcast half-hour specials on the WSOP, though never in prime time. Hold'em didn't become a mainstream phenomenon until Holocaust survivor Henry Orenstein invented a poker table with glass panels through which cameras could reveal each player's holecards. Orenstein had been motivated by the "incredibly boring" coverage on ESPN. "You couldn't see the holecards!" he complained. In 1998 his table was used for Late Night Poker on Britain's Channel 4, and two years later for the first Poker Mi££ion on Sky Sports 1. In March 2003 the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour began using "lipstick" cameras recessed into the rail to film the final table of its own monthly no-limit hold'em events, and ESPN used almost identical technology for several events in that summer's WSOP.

Before Orenstein's brainstorm, televised hold'em had been akin to watching bears hibernate and smoke. Stony professionals masking their thoughts made for excellent poker but ponderous television, since the audience had no idea who was bluffing and who held the nuts, even after most hands were over. The new holecard cameras gave viewers more information than the players contesting the pots had. Sidebars displayed relative chip counts, the size of the pot, and the odds of each hand winning at the showdown. Suddenly, watching million-dollar pots being wrangled over by seasoned road gamblers, lucky and talented amateurs, and telegenic young stars was both dramatic and highly educational.

The game played in virtually every televised event continues to be no-limit hold'em, the form that most consistently rewards an aggressive approach. The leverage it provides to win pots without the best hand gives forceful risk-takers a significant edge. Dan Harrington, the 1995 world champion and author of the definitive series of primers on no-limit hold'em tournaments, helps to explain its appeal: "The best poker variations strike the right balance between hidden and exposed cards. Texas hold'em lies right in the center of that sweet spot. Two hidden cards allow plenty of room for maneuvering, while five exposed cards allow a good player to make plenty of deductions about opposing hands."

Hold'em is also a ratings favorite because five of the seven cards in each hand are faceup in a neat row at the center of the table (alongside the sponsor's logo), so it's much easier for a mass audience to follow than stud action, in which as many as seven four-card boards compete for attention on an overcrowded screen. But the most telegenic feature of no-limit hold'em is that it allows both skilled and unskilled players to go all in — one of our century's favorite verbs — at any point in the hand. Editors cut past the sophisticated sparring of "small ball" experts to linger on crowd-pleasing, make-or-break hands, especially those involving poor sports or loudmouths. Another big drawback is that too many no-limit hands are decided by luck — a race between pocket queens and A-K, for example. The profligate use of all-in preflop bets is the reason 1999 World Champion Noel Furlong and others have called no-limit hold'em "two-card chicken." The criticism gains force as more and more players, drawn to the game by TV, try to compensate for their lack of post-flop talent and courage by pushing their entire stack forward whenever they're dealt a pair or an ace. As Addington scoffs, "This style of play, sometimes referred to as 'catch an ace and take a race,' re-introduces a substantial amount of luck into a game that had always favored the best player over the best card catcher."

H.O.R.S.E., on the other hand, requires much more supple and intricate play, combining both flop and stud skills, high and low hand values, and closer attention to many more boardcards. It's less about bravado than about cunning and intelligence. Because most elite pros now prefer H.O.R.S.E. for their biggest action, this challenging mixed game seems poised to someday eclipse no-limit hold'em as poker's most popular variant.

But for now, the one that evolved in Texas about a hundred years ago remains the clear game of choice in casinos, on television, in millions of kitchens and basements on every inhabited continent, as well as at tens of thousands of virtual tables, where most pots are contested by folks sitting oceans away from each other. When all in online, no one can read your face or body language to get a bead on whether you've flopped a made hand or you're drawing. And in the chat box, of course, no one can tell if you're drawlin'.


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